Statistical Science

An alternative to traditional GPA for evaluating student performance

Valen E. Johnson

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In response to the growing problem of grade inflation in American undergraduate institutions, alternatives to GPA and GPA-based student assessment are discussed. One alternative summary, based on a Bayesian latent trait formulation, eliminates many of the inequities associated with GPA-based measures and has been proposed as a replacement for GPA-based class ranks at Duke University.

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Statist. Sci., Volume 12, Number 4 (1997), 251-278.

First available in Project Euclid: 22 August 2002

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Johnson, Valen E. An alternative to traditional GPA for evaluating student performance. Statist. Sci. 12 (1997), no. 4, 251--278. doi:10.1214/ss/1030037959.

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  • Council (Gose, 1997). The initiative is apparently dead at Duke for the moment.
  • (Gose, 1997). The second obstacle is communicating the diagnosis and the designed solution to audiences including members who have difficulty understanding analytic arguments and whose interests may be to not understand them. The source of opposition at Duke is not surprising. The few studies that have been done all indicate that there has been relatively more grade inflation in "softer" subjects. While there has been inflation in the physical sciences and mathematics, there is apparently more resistance to inflation in domains with more sharply and logically defined right and wrong answers. Grade inflation has been an important edge for some fields in competing for students as core curricula have waned and student choices have waxed. It is a perverse form of price competition; they have been able to offer higher grades for equivalent or lesser amounts of work. Not incidentally, they also get higher levels of student satisfaction and better external appraisals of their "teaching quality" which increasingly influence promotions and salary adjustments in elite research institutions. The general analytic problem of which correcting grade point average is a specific instance is:
  • ginning of the 20th century (Young, 1993). What is the evidence on grade inflation? At the high school level, more than twice (32% versus 15%) as many first-year college students reported in a 1996 national survey that their overall high school grade point average (GPA) was an A-minus or better as compared with 30 years earlier (Hornblower,
  • 1997). Yet if students are doing better in schools, why are there now more complaints about the poor quality of schools? In many school districts, it is not uncommon for top-ranking students to flaunt GPA's of 4.2 on a grade scale that supposedly ranges from 0 to 4. One has to wonder what interpretation
  • Statistics, 1995). Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores declined over a 20-year period starting in the late 1960's and have risen only slightly since. Longitudinal changes in SAT scores are more difficult to interpret due to demographic changes in the composition of the test-taking population and because of self-selection factors in choosing to take the test. However, it is clear that the trend in SAT scores has not been commensurate with the corresponding rise in grades. Furthermore, because of less rigorous grading standards and grade inflation in high schools, the advantage of high school GPA over SAT scores in predicting college GPA has essentially van
  • ished (Bejar and Blew, 1981). The correlation of high school GPA with college GPA has declined while the correlation of SAT scores with college GPA has held constant so that both are now equally good predictors. Data from colleges and universities are no less convincing about grade inflation. For example, the average undergraduate grade at Harvard rose from the midpoint between a Band a B to better than a B+ during the 25-year period from 1967 to 1992 without a corresponding rise in test scores (Lam
  • bert, 1993). In addition, grades in the humanities at Harvard rose much more than in the social or natural sciences. The so-called gentleman's C is now at least the "gentleman's B" if not higher. Other firsttier universities, such as Stanford, report equally dramatic increases in the average grade assigned. With continuing grade inflation, one unfortunate impact is that admissions to graduate and professional schools will be made primarily on test results rather than on grades since students can no longer be distinguished on the basis of grades. Solutions to the problem of grade inflation such as the one developed by Professor Johnson are much needed. All of the pressures on grading are upward; remediating grade inflation cannot be accomplished individually but must be carried out collectively. Some institutions are attempting to deal with grade inflation by reinstating low grades; for example, after a long absence from students's transcripts, the F grade is again part of the Stanford grading sy s
  • tem (Fetter, 1995). However, this approach is likely to have an impact only at the bottom end of the grade distribution without materially affecting the average grade assigned. An alternative approach at Dartmouth, begun two years ago, is to report the median course grade along with the student's grade so that some context is available for interpreting student transcripts. Though worthy of consideration, both the Stanford and Dartmouth solutions are crude instruments being applied globally. The implementation of Johnson's achievement index at Duke will lead to fairer comparisons among students. Grading differences among instructors, courses and departments will impact students's GPA's to a much lesser degree than is true now. Students who major in departments with rigorous grading standards (ty pically, in the natural and mathematical sciences) will not be at so large a disadvantage in the competition for employ ment, for admissions to graduate school and for fellowships and scholarships. Furthermore, the incentive sy stem for instructors will be converted to one of assigning high grades to deserving students in a course rather than the present sy stem of assigning high grades to every one. Grade inflation is a serious and pervasive problem throughout education today. In the course of time, we will learn if Johnson's achievement index has served its purpose or whether further refinements are necessary, but this solution moves us in the right direction. In conclusion, Professor Johnson is to be commended for developing his achievement index and the faculty at Duke is to be praised for their courage in implementing it.
  • Patz (1996) and Zwick (1992). In fact, this identical model has appeared in research on general methods for ordinal data structures (e.g., grades) using latent variables in a Bayesian framework: see, for example, Albert and Chib (1993), Bradlow (1994) and
  • Bradlow and Zaslavsky (1996). Hemker, Sijtsma, Molenaar and Junker (1997) provide a comparative review of such models that explores the relationship between total score (unadjusted GPA) rankings and latent variable (adjusted GPA) rankings in some generality.
  • ature (see, e.g., Holland and Rubin, 1982). Equating problems also arise when SAT scores are compared from one year to the next; when students's scores on sequentially designed tests such as the current computerized version of the GRE are compared; and when scores in complex educational survey s with incomplete block designs for administering test questions are analyzed. How do we compare performances of different students based on different stimuli? Equating is clearly an experimental design question. In the examples above, the experimenter has enough control over the design to make the missingness plausibly ignorable (in the sense of Rubin, 1987; summarized in Gelman, Carlin, Stern and Rubin, 1995, Chapter 7) or modelable (e.g., Chang and
  • Ying, 1996). When Val distinguishes his Xi from the latent traits usually defined in item response models, calling it the "mean classroom achievement of the ith student, in classes selected by student i," the point is that there is a missingness process, in contrast to most general treatments of item response models, and it is not ignorable: clearly, students' self-selection process as well as the grades is informative for student rankings. A model such as Val's which treats this missing data mechanism as ignorable or missing at random is vulnerable to severe biases in estimation of the Xi, as illustrated recently
  • by Bradlow and Thomas (1997). Mislevy and Wu (1996) provide general conditions needed for ignorability in various inferences from educational testing data, and Wang, Wainer and Thissen (1995) explore this problem in the context of equating exam scores when students are allowed to choose among several essay questions to answer.
  • linear model tried by Larkey and Caulkin (1992). On the other hand, Val can and did expand to a multicomponent model, which is not possible with the Larkey-Caulkin approach. Such expansions are interesting substantively (we even found ourselves wondering if a single composite of "math" and "verbal" ability would adequately capture performance across the spectrum of undergraduate courses our statistics departments offer) as well as pragmatically; and we are happy to see that Val is exploring further possibilities along these lines as well. Stricker et al. (1994) considered a related multicomponent model for GPA. On a pragmatic level the multicomponent model provided a meaningful improvement in the correlation of adjusted GPA ranks with other predictors. So it was disappointing to us that such extensions are apparently being dismissed in the initial proposal for the adjusted GPA at Duke as being too hard for clients and users to understand. Though Val writes that a multicomponent model may be introduced later, after a certain "comfort level" with
  • 1994). Val's weighted-average achievement index based on the two-component model is a modelbased version of this compromise; perhaps this would provide an opportunity to make room for the multicomponent model as it becomes more well understood. 2.3 Computation We thought the data augmentation approach and corresponding prior for collapsing grade categories, discussed at the end of Section 2, was clever and interesting. The related discussion in Section 1.2 indicates the delicacy of the problem; for example, Bradlow (1994) shows that changing the grade category cutoff you fix can have dramatic effects on the MCMC convergence rates. We want to raise two concerns about this prior choice, however. First, while suppressing unobserved grade categories works well for fitting observed data for one cohort of students, it may be necessary, for the related problem of predicting future grades, to allow for the occurrence of such grade categories by putting nonnegligible prior probabilities on them. Second, it appears that classes in which all students are assigned the same grade will be ignored by the model; there is little comparative information from which to assess the class's difficulty. It may be possible to use historical grade data to supply prior information on the difficulty of such classes, as long as the problem of equating across years can be overcome. Turning to a different matter, when Val shows in Section 4.1 that the achievement index gives the correct ranking in the Larkey-Caulkin data, we would like to have seen posterior probabilities for all rankings. The beauty of obtaining Monte Carlo posterior samples is that simple counts can give interesting insights: was the "reverse" order-or some other order-a close competitor in posterior probability, for example?
  • 1996). As noted in the text, fixing any of the grade cutoffs makes the model unsuitable for analyzing undergraduate grade data, and I suspect the same is true for many other multirater ordinal datasets as well. Finally, Junker and Bradlow's comments regarding EB models are well taken. As White notes, the model was criticized at Duke for not "counting" independent study courses or small seminar courses in which only one grade was assigned (90% of independent study grades at Duke are either an A+, A-, or A; the median grade in classes containing fewer than five students is an A). In response to
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See also

  • Includes: Patrick D. Larkey. Comment: adjusting grades at Duke University.
  • Includes: John W. Young. Comment: grade inflation, a pervasive problem--a commentary on Johnson's achievement index.
  • Includes: Richard A. White. Comment: achievement index.
  • Includes: Brian W. Junker, Eric T. Bradlow. Comment by Brian W. Junker and Eric T. Bradlow.
  • Includes: Valen E. Johnson. Rejoinder by Valen E. Johnson.